For Claire Nash, it was a solution that was literally right in front of her. When she had to shut her restaurant, Nash 19, under the coronavirus lockdown and realised that social distancing would threaten the viability of the business once she reopened, she had to use everything at her disposal. Princes Street - the short thoroughfare in Cork city centre where her restaurant is located - was her trump card.
Together with a Princes Street publican and a fellow restaurateur, she proposed to Cork City Council that the street be given over to tables and chairs. "There was a lot of work to do," she says. "But the council got on board with it."
When Nash 19, Clancy's pub and all the other cafés, bars and restaurants got to resume business at the end of last month, the crowds came flocking to the street - and were more than happy to have their dinner in the middle of the road. "The atmosphere has been great," Nash says. "People can enjoy a meal out in the heart of the city and feel that they are socially distant too."
Photos on social media on the day the street became an al fresco dining room captured something that for many is one of the upsides of the pandemic: a focus on a slower, more people-centric approach to our urban environment; one in which pedestrians, cyclists and people enjoying a fish supper with a glass of wine take precedence over car journeys and traffic jams.
This narrow street next to the historic English Market is one of several around the country that have become pop-up pedestrian zones over the past few weeks. New Street in Malahide, Co Dublin, has been closed to traffic for the past five weeks, and Fingal County Council is allowing it to remain that way until the end of August.
There are other signs too. Permanent-looking segregated cycle lanes have been installed throughout Dublin since mid-May - most notably on the once-treacherous north Liffey quays - and several towns and cities have implemented footpath-widening schemes to give pedestrians more room to keep their distance.
Robert Burns is Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council's director of infrastructure and climate control and he is busy with multiple projects that he hopes will transform the way people get around.
One of the council's key works is the creation of a cycleway between Blackrock and Sandycove in south Dublin. Perhaps to dispel the impression that it is only for cyclists, it has been named the Coastal Mobility Route - and it has been busy in the few weeks it has been open.
'Too dangerous before'
"It's been really great to see," Burns says. "All sorts of cyclists are using it, from young children to people in their 80s. Previously, that road was not a comfortable one for cyclists because it was busy with two-way traffic."
Now a one-way system has been introduced and, far from the pathway being a strip of paint on a road, this route has a cycle path in both directions and is lined with 'wands' to stop motorised traffic encroaching on the space.
For local resident Richard Morton, the new cycle path has been transformative. "I've lived in the area for many years and although we cycle quite a lot as a family, it was the first time all of us cycled that route to Dún Laoghaire. It was simply too dangerous to do that before - the road was narrow and twisting and you'd have cars coming close to you to overtake."
Morton, his wife Emma and their three children cycled to the popular farmers' market in the People's Park, Dún Laoghaire, last Sunday for the first time. "Previously, we would have gone by car," he says. "When the schools go back, the cycle path will really come into its own."
A cycle route on the coast road between Blackrock and Sandymount was first mooted more than 20 years ago. Some have been taken aback by the speed with which it was installed - and they used a new Facebook page to vent their frustrations about the new limits on where they can drive - but Burns says the pandemic has accelerated the need for change. "We want to make our urban environment more likeable, with more sustainable and energy efficient and this is a way of doing that," he says.
Traffic management expert Dave O'Connor, of Technical University (TU) Dublin, says initiatives such as the Princes Street pedestrianisation and the Coastal Mobility Route help with a process known as 'traffic evaporation'.
"It sounds simplistic, but traffic can be reduced - or evaporate - when traffic management systems are put in place," he says. "You might think that traffic that is reduced in one area simply goes somewhere else, but that isn't the case in well-managed situations. It simply disappears."
O'Connor says this may sound too good to be true, but it has been shown to be effective in places such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen. "The key is to put in really good alternatives, whether that's a much-improved public transport system or safe and continuous cycle routes. It gives people an attractive option to leave their car at home.
"The Netherlands used to have a very high road fatality rate, and many children died. There was a strong push against the car and that helped create an environment today where the bike is central to how people get around. Copenhagen too - it wasn't always a bike-friendly city, but they worked hard to make it that way."
He says a stick-and-carrot approach has been proved to work best. "If people perceive certain journeys to be a hassle by car - maybe if you have to go a circuitous route or if there's limited or no car parking where you're going - many will seek alternative modes of travel. And that's what can help ease traffic congestion and encourage people to seek more sustainable options."
It is a sentiment echoed by O'Connor's TU Dublin colleague Lorraine D'Arcy. "When sustainable alternatives to the car come on stream," she says, "many people will get on board. For a long time, our cities and towns were planned in a sort of piecemeal way. There wasn't enough joined-up planning. But that's changing."
D'Arcy believes the pandemic has given the country an opportunity to take stock and plan for a transport and mobility system that is not car-dependent. "It requires a sea change in attitude, to really look at how we plan new housing schemes and how we use the infrastructure that's already there," she says. "Take laneways: for a long time, people have wanted to close them off - they've been worried about anti-social behaviour, perhaps - but they can be used creatively to aid with mobility."
While much of the conversation about traffic and how it could be reduced in a post-Covid world has centred on cities such as Dublin, D'Arcy says it is important that all urban areas - irrespective on size - try to implement more pedestrian and cycle-friendly options. She cites Westport, Co Mayo as an example of a medium-sized town that has made significant progress. Thanks to the provision of safe cycling paths and walkways, the numbers of children being taken by car to school has dropped significantly.
Neasa Hourigan, the Green Party TD for Dublin Central, has called for joined-up thinking when it comes to how local government implements change. "I see protected bike lanes and newly pedestrianised streets springing into existence," she told the Dáil last week. "I see families sitting out and enjoying meals on the streets of Cork and shoppers wandering and enjoying the space for people in Ennis.
"However, I also see local authorities such as Limerick City and County Council taking decisions that are, quite frankly, worrying in the context of the pandemic and the best interests of the public in the future. This local authority is offering free parking to encourage car use in the centre of the city at weekends."
Hourigan wants the speed limit in all built-up areas reduced to 30km/h, in line with the 'Stockholm declaration' announced following an international ministers' conference on road safety in February. She also hopes that the planned €1m-a-week earmarked to improve cycling infrastructure during the lifetime of the Government will help to radically reduce carbon emissions from cars.
Joe Brady, of University College Dublin's School of Geography, is a leading authority on the evolution of commuting and transport in Dublin over the past 100 years, and he says planning decisions taken until recently have given precedence to the car.
"Look at the shopping malls built in the suburbs, in what we call the 'edge city' [a concentration of shops and businesses outside the traditional city core], look at the housing developments that assume everyone has a car," he says. "So much of the development of Dublin and other cities and towns in this country has been based on people getting into their cars and driving."
For many years, he opted to cycle to work from his home in Drumcondra, on the northside of Dublin, to UCD's Belfield campus on the southside. "Sometimes, it felt as though you were taking your life into your hands because there were parts that were so hostile to cyclists," he says. "That's changing, but there's still a long way to go."
Brady believes the greatest hope for reduced car usage is a continuation of working from home, at least some of the time. "Traffic congestion has always been fuelled by people driving to and from the office," he says. "If a significant number of people want to and are able to work from home, we will see a change. But you have to remember that there is a cohort of people who do need to use their cars and who don't feel comfortable getting on buses when this pandemic is still with us."
Cycling campaigners and activists for cities to be far more pedestrian-friendly than before have long called for change. Karl Purdy, who runs the Coffeeangel cafés in Dublin, is one of those who helped to have parking removed from South Anne Street, a key artery in the so-called Grafton Quarter.
"Half of the street was pedestrianised anyway and it seemed like such a waste to have cars there all day when they could be used to help business on the street to not just aid with social distancing for their customers, but to also showcase what a beautiful street it is," he says.
He believes a large majority of businesses on such historic streets would welcome pedestrianisation and that it would bring the heart of Dublin in line with other European cities. "It makes cities feel more oriented for people," he says. "Of course, some will have to get in by car, but some streets should be car-free."
Áine McCabe takes a different view. The pharmacist in Malahide, Co Dublin opposes the temporary closure of New Street to traffic and says the decision was taken suddenly and without adequate engagement with the town's residents and business owners.
"It has cause quite a significant traffic problem in Malahide, because drivers have been diverted elsewhere," she says.
"There are genuine worries that people will simply drive to places like Clarehall [shopping centre, 15 minutes' drive away] to do their shopping."
McCabe is not opposed to the street becoming a one-way thoroughfare with a cycle lane or increased footpath space. "We're just looking for compromise," she says.
Claire Nash, meanwhile, is hopeful that Princes Street can become a permanent al fresco dining destination in Cork city. "It's summer now and it's working beautifully," she says, "but we need to think of ways it can work all-year round."
She believes part of the street could be roofed and a 'heat strip' down the centre would provide comfort for customers. "It takes a bit of vision," she says, "and I think people want to see it. The pandemic has been very hard for us all, but there might be some ways in which we make the most of the challenge and create something special for the future."